“Can I date a white person and still be woke?” is the wrong question

By Jarune Uwujaren

This question, y’all. This question.

It’s always on the tip of someone’s tongue––when a Jessie Williams leaves his Black wife for a white girl, or a Serena Williams marries a white dude, or an Unidentified Williams who’s a friend of a friend on Facebook talks about how it feels to repeatedly see Black public figures loving damn near everyone but each other.

No matter how broad or nuanced a conversation about Black people dating white people is or must be, there is always a radio station, publication, or Facebook commenter who just wants to know how the conversation affects the woke card status of white-partnered Black people.

So a Black person’s white partner shouldn’t come to Black Pride? Okay, but can I date a white person and still be woke?

So you’re frustrated because you’re interested in dating Black men but you’re constantly having to ask yourself if they’re even attracted to Black women because of how many of them treat white girls like the pinnacle of femininity. All right, all right, but can I date a white person and still be woke?

So you’re finding it hard to date within your queer community because of how white-centered it is and you’re tired of seeing other Black people dating everyone but each other. I see you, I see you—but if I dated a white person would I still be woke?

It sounds ridiculous when I put this question next to what people actually tend to talk about when they express their personal frustrations around white-partnered Black people, but this is exactly where the question tends to pop up. It’s as if there is no allowance for people to work out the politics of intimate relationships without being pressed to center whiteness yet again by handing a woke pass and a complimentary +1 invite to the cookout to everyone who gets uncomfortable.

“Can woke Black people date white people?” is the wrong question to ask because it is by its very nature seeking outside approval. I’m willing to bet that the person asking the question isn’t interested in hearing a hard “no,” which is going to be the answer from a lot of Black people who are (justifiably) tired of being asked to care about white people. And the person asking is definitely not interested in dumping their partner, changing their dating habits, or hinging their personal decisions on that answer either.

The truth is, there are better questions to ask oneself about the personal choice (and yes, it is a choice) involved in being Black and dating a white person or people. If that’s you, it is not the job of all other Black people to make you feel good about that choice, to make your partner feel comfortable, to make you feel “woke” as a Black person who is adjacent to whiteness, or to make you feel secure in your Black identity. Most, if not all, of that work—that emotional labor, criticism, and reflection—is on you as the person making a decision that no one but you and your partner can consent to.

I’m saying this as a person who, full disclosure, has a white partner and doesn’t care who other people date, but I’m also saying this as someone who doesn’t think it’s unreasonable for other Black people to side-eye me or anyone else on sight for that. Those of us with white partners really do engage in some self-centering, fragile, overly reactive behavior when we or our partners feel threatened. It…kind of…reminds me of another common fragility. Hmm.

There are a lot of problems that come along with un-examined proximity to whiteness, and intimate partnerships can bring those issues into communal Black spaces very easily. That’s why it’s important to go beyond deciding whether one can be woke and date a white person and begin asking instead about the whole host of behaviors surrounding that decision. I’ve asked or am asking myself things like:

Why am I dating a white person?

I’m serious. Why? When I’m Black, my family is Black, and my political center is Black, why did I end up dating a white person? Could it be related to internalized anti-Blackness, loneliness, genuinely clicking with someone, growing up in a white neighborhood, currently living in a predominantly white area, or seeing few models of Black love in the media or around me that I could aspire to?

I find that a lot of times people will respond to a conversation about interracial dating by describing themselves as an exception to the idea that the personal is the political—“I can’t help whom I love.” “Black people wouldn’t date me.” “I’m too different from other Black people, and I didn’t want to keep looking.”

Seeing these surface-level responses over and over again from multiple people is why this question has become important to me, because something is not being examined that would be interesting (and useful) to examine.

In my case, I highly doubt it’s a coincidence that there are three women in my family with non-Black husbands, that we were African immigrants whose parents didn’t strongly identify themselves as Black, and that I’ve struggled with internalized anti-Blackness and the desire for approval. And I keep seeing bits of things I’ve spent years working through and getting past mirrored in surface-level analyses that treat romantic relationships as if they are above examination or critique.

I see the desire to be included in Blackness alongside undisguised anti-Blackness. I see the backing away from meaningful critique into colorblindness. I see the claims of differentness and uniqueness being used to push away criticism. Going toward the uncomfortable shit is better than ignoring it, because when you have this many Black people fucked up over the same thing, it’s going to show up in community.

Do I center my own or my partner’s comfort in my interactions with community?

A loving and respectful partner knows and respects boundaries. Black space, Black community, and Black conversations all have hard boundaries. A white (or non-Black) partner who doesn’t respect those boundaries is an absolute menace because a lot of white people think their Black partner is an automatic invitation to invade and encroach on Black people’s shit, Black people be damned.

I’m talking about white people who get too comfortable. White people who think they’re down and start throwing around the n-word because they once slept with a Black person. White people who openly fetishize the Black people they date but think they’re not racist because, look, they’re dating Black people. White people who think going to Black events and pushing their way into Black spaces is a good way to learn about our culture. White people who fetishize mixed people or having mixed children but want none of the political ramifications of raising a Black child in America.

The vast majority of Black people do not want to deal with these macroaggressive and racist people, but many of us have fallen prey to them because, lo and behold, they are more than happy to sleep with us. And when we’re not careful, they and their racist behavior traipse right into Black spaces with an unhealthy dose of entitlement, ignorance, and the approval of their Black partners.

So ask—am I putting a white person’s comfort, or my comfort, before the needs of my community by encouraging invasive and voyeuristic behavior in Black spaces? And am I ready to check myself and my partner if that ever becomes the case, even if it isn’t now?

Do I default to defensiveness when others discuss the politics of interracial dating, even when the discussion isn’t personal?

I’ve observed many reasons why people have stopped assuaging people’s feelings and started just defaulting to not fucking with white-partnered Black people, and one of them is the unnecessary defensiveness of a lot of people who have white partners. We all know how annoying it is to have a discussion about race and racism and have a white person hop in to say, “Oh gosh, most white people aren’t like that! You really shouldn’t stereotype!” Most of us wouldn’t bat an eye at these people from the “not all white people” “All Lives Matter” brigade getting told to stop focusing on themselves and their feelings.

I’m not saying these two situations are equivalent, but it is still really annoying and unnecessary to be in the midst of a conversation about the politics of interracial dating between white and Black people and wind up talking about how totally hurt someone is that he and his Woke White Wife aren’t being welcomed and accepted even though he was a nerd and Black women never wanted him and he met his wife in Portland where there are only two Black people anyway and his wife does more for the Black community than some Black people and and and…

Meanwhile, a potentially meaningful conversation is derailed, someone’s unwanted life story is being aired to a bunch of people who have neither the emotional capacity nor time to care, a white person has been put on a pedestal and woke-ified just so someone didn’t have to critique themselves, and everyone is tired.

The problem with these kinds of interactions is the same problem inherent to the question, “Can I date a white person and still be woke?” We do ourselves a disservice when we reduce a topic rich in the potential to explore power dynamics, intimacy, racial identity, and desirability (broad issues) to a question of whether the Woke Committee approves of people’s personal lives and decisions (overly specific issues).

If you want to date a white person or people, no one can stop you from doing so, and most people aren’t concerned with you in particular. But we all have to look at what and who we bring to bed with us every night because they deeply inform the thinking, living, and working we do beyond closed doors.

Jarune is a writer, editor, and savory grits stan currently based in Baltimore, MD. In case you were curious, the name is Nigerian, the person with the name is American, and the e is not silent. Jarune has been editing and writing on the subjects of social justice, race, queer identity, and feminism since the start of their career in 2012. You can check out more of their writing here.

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  1. Kemunto Schoenfeld June 8, 2017 — 7:22 pm

    Gosh. This hit so close to home. So, very close to home. I have been struggling with certain feelings lately. I have come to the realization that I’m married to a partner(white) who does not get it. He makes immature jokes about BLM. He thinks white privilege is a stupid , cheap shot made up by lazy blacks. He makes snarky comments about slavery. I could go on. It is bad. I have called him out on his bullshit, unapologetically. Over and over again. Honestly, I’m tired. After reading what you wrote, I realize I need to ask myself some deep rooted questions. Lots of questions. It’s something I haven’t thought about before, but your article was all I needed. Thank you. THANK YOU.

    • Julian Steptoe July 5, 2017 — 5:35 pm

      ?It is hard to educate an unwilling student, and partners are students of each other, not possessions. We must be, in partnership, students and teachers. It is hard to learn from unwilling teachers.

  2. Right on. Great piece. I’m married to a white man and there are no “buts”. I have no excuse. I never claim he is a Good White. And being married to a white person doesnt mean I love whiteness or all white people any more than being to a black man would mean I love everything every black person has ever done (although I DO love black people a LOT). Attraction, dating, and marriage is complicated and adding the fact of a different race/culture makes it more complicated. If messing with white people was an instant disqualification nearly all our black heroes would be out of the history books . For me being woke is a state of mind and approach to the world and it is the responsibility of every individual to fight their own “jihad” as regards staying down for the struggle.

    What I’d *really* love to know is what exactly “woke” means to people. It seems rather squishy such that it can be associated with any range of political positions from black “get yo paper” capitalist to a more lefty activist/militancy. What is the value of being woke if woke can be pretty much anything?

    Most finally as a straight woman I also think this conversation does extend itself to something some feminists pushed in the 70s which is that no true feminist would marry a man. Our foremother Audre Lorde (a queer black lesbian with a longtime white partner) long ago said the personal is political and I agree. That said, I believe the majority of the work to be done is in the streets not between the sheets.

  3. Lawal Babajide June 9, 2017 — 6:38 am

    Marrying white lady or man isn’t bad but the misconception of colour pigment has blindfolded many from thinking right. Black don’t discriminate or hate white person. I love black and white because they are human. I am so desirous to marry a white lady because she is human. It is shallow thought discriminating colour pigment. All I cringe after is reasonability or a reasonable being. White is beautiful and black is more beautiful.

  4. Kristen Talley June 9, 2017 — 8:53 pm

    I honestly think that the scope of this article is a bit narrow. What about the ‘Wokefied’ white people who don’t interject about how ‘all white people aren’t that bad’ or who don’t attempt to push themselves into the Black community except by sincere invitation of their significant other? I realize my situation may be a bit atypical, but I’ve been with my white husband for nearly a decade, and you could consider my ‘born on the Southside of Chicago’ family truly ‘woke’ about the trials and challenges that the black community faces on a regular basis. That being said, Josh has never voiced a privileged opinion about himself or his family when encountering family members or indeed, myself, commenting or debating the politics of the black community. He has only ever listened intently and given his opinion when asked about things. Josh has been privy to many emotionally charged situations and been made uncomfortable because he ‘can’t understand because he’s white.’ While I completely comprehend that he will NEVER understand what it’s like to be Black in America, he certainly has enough experience to have an opinion and the right to voice it, especially if he’s asked for his. I don’t understand the overwhelming backlash that occurs when a Black person asks a non-Black a question about their opinion of anti-blackness. My stand point is: ‘You asked, you don’t get to snub someone out of anger for a question you posed to them’ It seems like, regardless of the white person’s response, Black people get the right to be offended if a white person has an opinion/question on anti-Blackness. Also discussions like this in general always appear (to me) to culminate in that the right to be offended about certain responses to questions or inquiries of opinion seems to be bestowed on the Black speaker, but not reciprocated to the white party. ‘Can I still be woke and date a white person,’ seems entirely too superficial a question to ask also, because it removes any emotional relevance that a relationship has and replaces it with cold boxes of black and white. There is a large majority of ‘woke’ black people who feel a sort of PTSD from familial experiences and the resulting reactions when questioned about dating ‘outside the race’ and I understand that this article is pointing that out. However the body of the article seems to solely focus on the ‘dater’ and the importance of acknowledgement of legitimacy from their community versus the rejection of that legitimacy based on their mixed race relationship status. ‘I’m woke’ inherently excludes everyone but blacks because it suggests that no other culture is observant enough to understand the major problems and struggles within the black community, though they do have to same problem solving and analyzation skills as ‘woke Blacks’ do. Sure, there’s no speaking point to experience AT ALL, but anyone with eyes can see the struggles of social/income/political etc, inequality that Blacks face daily, and empathize with the Black struggle. It’s exclusionary in that it removes the possibility that the white party is cognizant of the Black struggle, or rather states that a white person is unable to be supportive of their loved ones’ community, because that support would make someone else (Black) uncomfortable. Your question triggers the very same guilt that it’s meant to try and understand. Inherently offensive to me, coming from a truly ‘woke’ Black family that constantly used to deride the legitimacy of a mixed race relationship simply on the premise that we ‘can’t understand those people and they don’t understand us.’ Josh knows me better than my own family at times, not just because he’s studied what little actual black history they publish in textbooks, or because he embraces certain aspects of black culture, but because he truly listens to me and discusses things that I feel are important within the black community with a completely objective attitude. Regardless of the ‘woke’ status, being in love shouldn’t guilt trip the person in love. However, this is what your question did to me, unnecessarily. Questioning if someone is ‘allowed to fully embrace black’ (which in my opinion is the definition of ‘woke’) just because they’re in a relationship with someone from a different culture is judgemental and offensive. Why should I care whether anyone thinks I’m ‘woke’? What would my relationship to this wonderful human have to do with my ‘black status?’ In real life there is never a purely black and white outcome so it’s impossible to analyze this question without severing the very real feelings of love, affection, and romance that are inherently trivialized by the question itself. The relationship (which is the most important thing) becomes overshadowed by the question of if one party has the ‘right’ to be a certain way just because they chose to love differently. I was discussing this with my sister who deals with that same PTSD + guilt over dating non-blacks and when I was trying to express my opinion to her, I realized how shallow the nature of the question is. You love who you love, no one else has the right to make you feel anything about that fact, but indeed, you. Who cares if people think I’m not ‘woke’ because I married white? I’m happy and in love, that’s all that matters.

    • I’m married to a white man and you’re exhibiting the defensiveness to which the author is referring. Do we really need a #notallwhitepartners hashtag? My husband is great, your husband is great. Why the rant?

  5. Kincaid Blackwood June 20, 2017 — 3:35 pm

    There’s a bit of a problem here and as much as I can appreciate personal responsibility and self reflection, this sort of skirts the issue of the fact that every black person with a black partner is under no obligation to make the black community at large comfortable with their choice. Put a little differently: the black community shouldn’t continue to take it as an affront or be so delicate when members of the black community make the personal choice to date white partners.

    Yes, the questions you ask are valid ones but by ignoring that flip side — by only paying the notion lip service by saying it’s “a personal choice and no one else’s business” — that still centers it in the perspective of the person with the partner and telling them what they need to do… without any space where you turn it around and tell those from the outside looking at the Black-White couple and explaining why they need to NOT ask that question (because they question how awake you are too) while acknowledging that the reflex of asking the question comes from an understandable place.

    Where is that challenge to the community? Black people within those relationships, we (yes, I have a white partner) have many issues that we grapple with and many questions we ask ourselves. But this article takes the question “Can a Black person with a white partner still be awake to the issue?” and assumes that it’s the individual in the relationship asking that question instead of presenting the question as asked from both sides. I was expecting this to be an essay that could be broken down as “Here’s why it’s none of your business who those black people date AND here’s why they can still be on it.” But in actuality it could be summed up as “You ask yourself this question when you’re dating a white partner and though it’s not their business you need to be delicate with the rest of the Black community and here’s how you do that…”

    That does the broader question a disservice. And, frankly, centering it all on the individual and ignoring the community’s shared responsibility is something we criticize the white community for doing.

    • Married to a white guy here.

      Marrying white is done for lots of reasons, some of which are harmful to your own race. Plus, once you marry white, you get access to their privilege – if you’re so inclined? You can present them to resolve issues that would be more challenging to solve as a black person. Traffic stop – oh look at this nice white person in the car with the black one. Maybe the black ones not so bad (or I’ll get in big trouble if I eff with this black person in front of this white one). Whatever the case may be. I challenge any person of color married to a white person to say that the have NEVER gotten privilege bonus points from it.

      So, black distrust is natural, imo. And instead of trying to control that by saying, but I’m not like that! Or, why are you judging me?!, perhaps you could just live your own life, so your own work, pay attention to your actions, and keep it moving. The portions of the black community that are relevant to your daily life will catch on. Your white partner didn’t get adopted by the black community overall, by your family, maybe, but not by the millions of folks who comprise the American diaspora. And those millions don’t know you.

  6. This is one of the best articles I’ve read on the topic in a long time. Possibly ever. The WORK of being in an interracial relationship is on the person(s) who chose that relationship. Period. It doesn’t get to be shifted or transferred to their community.

    There are people who don’t want to be woke, too. That is a privilege not all of us have. But then, I suppose ignorance has always been bliss.

    Kirsten: I think you ought to read the post again. It was definitely for you, lol.

  7. Julian Steptoe July 5, 2017 — 5:27 pm

    The word is “awake”, or “awakened’, and no. Dating is about the dream. Dreams occur in isolation. Reverse the question. Define the dream.

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